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On Christmas Day, hundreds of people from the remote village of San Antonio Secortez, located in Raxruhá municipality in the lush department of Alta Verapaz, Guatemala, arrived at the home of Jakelin Caal Maquin. The seven-year-old Maya Q’eqchi’ girl died on December 8 while in the custody of the United States Customs and Border Protection.

“Jakelin use to love collecting jocotes here,” remembered the girl’s grandfather, Domingo Caal, the day following her funeral as we walked through his field. He was referring to the small yellow and red fruits that grow on trees native to Guatemala.

Jakelin’s death has rocked the small village. It has especially worried families whose members have already attempted migration to the United States. Roberto Pop, a fifty-one-year-old member of the local development committee from the nearby village of Invasa, has lost contact with his twenty-two-year-old son, Joaquin, who set out to the United States on December 10.

“He left due to necessity,” Pop told The Progressive. “For fifteen days we have known nothing of him.”

Pop’s son paid 98,000 Quetzales, or about $13,000 U.S. dollars, to a coyote to smuggle him through Mexico from the city of Mazatenango, Suchitepequez, Guatemala. Popp said his son was offered a lower price if he brought a child with him, but his father refused to let him bring siblings. Smugglers charge less if a child goes along, banking on the chance that migrants with children can turn themselves in to border agents and will soon be released.

Felipe and his father were attempting to flee the extreme poverty in northwestern Guatemala, a region that is largely forgotten by the government.

And even as the Q’eqchi’ Maya community mourned Jakelin, another tragedy unfolded. Early in the morning of December 25, Felipe Goméz Alonzo, an eight-year-old Maya Chuj from the remote village of Yalambojoch, Nenton, Huehuetenango, died in New Mexico, again, in the custody of U.S. Custom and Border Protection.

Goméz Alonzo was captured along with his father by border agents earlier in December. The day before his death he exhibited flu symptoms, and was hospitalized.

Felipe and his father were attempting to flee the extreme poverty in northwestern Guatemala, a region that is largely forgotten by the government.

The deaths of Guatemalan migrants in U.S. Border Patrol custody has been met by outrage. On December 24, Felipe González Morales, the United Nations’ special rapporteur on the human rights of migrants, demanded that the United States probe the deaths and end the detention of children.

The Trump Administration has defended its immigration policy amidst the outcry. The day after Christmas, Secretary of Homeland Security Kristjen Nielsen released a statement accusing the children’s families of being responsible for their deaths.

“Our system has been pushed to a breaking point by those who seek open borders,” Nielsen said. “Smugglers, traffickers, and their own parents put these minors at risk by embarking on the dangerous and arduous journey north.”

The Trump Administration has continued to demand the construction of a border wall as a solution to immigration, launching a battle that has led to a partial government shutdown during the holiday season.

On December 28, Trump tweeted that he will close the southern border of the U.S. if Democrats do not fund his wall. He also repeated a threat to end economic aid to Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras over the continuation of migration from the region.

Migration from Guatemala’s department of Alta Verapaz has spiked in the past year, due in part to extreme poverty and a lack of means for people to improve their situation. According to the office of Raxruha Mayor César Castro, at least 200 people have left for the United States from the municipality since the beginning of 2018, something new for the region. And even as Trump threatens aid, two more caravans are set to leave from El Salvador and Honduras for the U.S. border in January.

This trend is mirrored in the rest of the country, with the number of Guatemalans fleeing extreme poverty and systemic discrimination steadily climbing in 2018. According to data from the United States Customs and Border Protection, more than 50,000 Guatemalans were captured along the U.S. border with Mexico. In the same time period, Mexican immigration officials captured more than 27,000 Guatemalans attempting to reach the U.S. border.

Many of those seeking to reach the United States are indigenous Mayan.

“Discrimination [against indigenous people] is a great social problem,” Eduardo Jimenez told The Progressive. Jimenez directs the Cajola Group, an organization working to promote local development as a way to slow out-migration from the department of Quetzaltenango. “People leave in order to have a better social position.”

Communities such as San Antonio Secortez and Yalambojoch are utterly abandoned by the Guatemalan State. According to research from the Central American Institute for Fiscal Studies, the Guatemalan government invests 45 cents in indigenous communities for every dollar that the government invests in non-indigenous communities.

Inequality can be seen throughout the country. The remote department of Huehuetenango has among the highest levels of abandoned public works projects, and the department of Alta Verapaz suffers from the highest levels of extreme poverty and impunity. Guatemala has some of the highest levels of malnutrition in Latin America. Added to this, the public health care system has collapsed, with many communities lacking quality services, and public education is failing.

Guatemalan men historically have migrated to the coast for harvest season in order to support their families, but this changed during the country’s thirty-six-year-long internal armed conflict, which compelled people to begin to seek refuge in the United States.

During that conflict, both Alta Verapaz and Huehuetenango were the sites of major massacres and forced disappearances by the Guatemalan military. The Commision for Historical Clarification declared these efforts a genocide against the Mayan people.

The 1996 peace accords included efforts to address the out-migration, including recognizing the rights of the Mayan people and resolving the inequalities in land ownership. But as corporate agro-industry has expanded in the country, less land is available for small landholders.

The only job opportunities are in agro-industries such as palm oil, coffee, sugar cane, or banana, where those lucky enough to find work face harsh labor conditions, mistreatment by companies, and low pay.

In addition, according to residents of Raxruha, the value of corn has plummeted as the country’s markets have been swamped by Mexican and U.S. imports, leaving many small farmers without the means of supporting their families. As Domingo notes, there is little support for rural farmers.

The only job opportunities are in agro-industries, such as palm oil, coffee, sugar cane, or banana. Those lucky enough to find work face harsh labor conditions, mistreatment by companies, and low pay, roughly $9 dollars a day, far below the amount needed to feed a family. Efforts to raise the minimum wage paid to agriculture workers have been strongly resisted by the country’s Agro-industry Chamber of Commerce.

“No one would migrate if their needs were being met,” Pop said. “The companies here in Guatemala do not respect the rights of the workers. They are paid very little. If they speak up, then they are fired.”


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